It’s one of those memories that sticks with a teacher long after the mats are rolled up.
I was leading a yoga for runners workshops – one of my specialties, since I was a runner long before I ever attempted yoga – when a student asked me what she was supposed to feel in trikonasana, aka triangle pose.
A sly grin crept on my face.
“Whatever feels right, that’s what you’re supposed to feel.”
It was clear she wasn’t in on my joke.
“Yeah, okay, but is it a hamstring stretch? What about the side of my torso?”
“It is what you need it to be,” I replied, trying my best not to look like the Cheshire Cat with the look on my face.
“Okay, whatever, but I need to know what I’m looking for.”
“Who says you’re supposed to be looking for anything?”
Before I completely ticked her off (and it was clear I was getting her frustrated), I went into all the various ways you can get into trikonasana. How sensation changes for me depending on whether or not I use a block, focus on lengthening the torso, where I place my hands, etc. Even after my new age anatomy lesson, it was clear she was not satisfied. She wanted answers, and I didn’t provide them.
This wasn’t the first time I had frustrated a student. I use phrases like “maybe” and “yogi’s choice” so often you could make a drinking game out of it. I treat the ubiquitous “vinyasa flow” like a 30-second recess. I typically like pausing at certain poses that are notoriously customizable (looking at you, tree pose) to discuss the different places we can place our hands – which usually turns the class into a temporary dance recital with everyone following me move for move.
“Your class is frustrating,” one of my very first students told me (ironically, long before I became the open-ended instructor that I am today). “I’m used to being told what to do and what I should expect.”
And that, my yogis, is why I’m hoping to tick you off.
Ideally, I don’t. Ideally, you have found your practice and never once do I frustrate you. But life isn’t ideal. The way our minds are set up to survive the world isn’t ideal. And I want to help rewire that.
Why? Because it makes no sense for a 5’10” woman with broad shoulders, wide hips, and scar tissue behind her left knee to be telling a 4’9″ woman with a petite frame exactly where she’s going to feel a pose. Likewise, I have no business stating as truth the exact foot placement that feels great for me when they could anger something in someone else.
Because yoga – just like everything else in life – is going to feel different for every single person experiencing it. We all come to the mat with an amazingly unique set of experiences: both physically, mentally, and emotionally. No one else has our exact musculature, bone structure, muscle memory, or mindset.
So – surprise, surprise – there is no cover-all set of instructions I can give you.
I can give you safe alignment. I can give you suggestions on how to move the body. But – ready for this? – you are your own teacher.
And, hey, approaching yoga in this fashion might not be where you’re at right now. Maybe right now you need a teacher to tell you to Put Your Foot Here and You Will Feel This in Your Calf Muscles. That’s cool. We all start somewhere. I’d love to have you in my class, but I’d prefer you in a class that resonated with you.
But here’s the thing: when we go into our practice with set expectations, we create a very faulty framework. When we go in expecting an outside force to dictate our experience, we create a very faulty framework. And when anything falls outside of that framework, we think less of ourselves. What a wasted pose. A wasted practice. I must be bad at yoga.
This is your chance to tune into your own body and honor your own experience. This is something that we just don’t do, both on the mat and off. Instead, we take in all these external influences and compare and essentially tune out the present moment. We put a value judgment on our experiences, we ignore the experience by comparing it to the past or other people’s experiences, or we power through experiences because they don’t resonate (but we feel we need to “deal with it”) – but rarely do we put ourselves in the moment and just see what it is for what it is.
So I want you ticked off. I want you to look like you’re doing choreography as I place my hands to my heart, my sides, up overhead, and so on. I want you to go, “What am I supposed to be doing if you don’t tell me what to do?! Who’s supposed to be the teacher around here?”